Scripture: Luke 23:32-34
Preached by Tracey Leslie on March 20, 2016 at Lafayette Trinity UM Church
We have all heard the cliché “Forgive and forget.” I’ll be honest, though. I have a hard time with that cliché. Frankly, I think it’s pretty worthless.
We sometimes apply it to circumstances that, in my opinion, cheapen the idea of forgiveness. Let’s say, for example, that you and I were having lunch somewhere and I happened to be wearing a new, much-loved, pair of slacks. (And, keep in mind it’s tough for me to find clothes that fit.) Now imagine that you inadvertently knocked over your cup of coffee and it spilled onto my slacks. You would probably begin to apologize and might even offer to pay my dry-cleaning bill. I, although upset, might respond “Don’t worry about it.
It’s not that big a deal. Forgive and forget.” But, really; do I need to forgive you? What is there to forgive; that you’re human and, like every other human, sometimes a little clumsy? That hardly requires forgiveness. Does it?
And as for forgetting… I can think of plenty of occasions when forgetting is bad advice. If a woman, or man for that matter, is in an abusive relationship with a partner who beats them or publicly humiliates them on a regular basis, do we really want to encourage that person to forget – as if it just isn’t important, really doesn’t matter?
Finally, what if I had hurt you in a deep way, like betraying your trust? Will you really ever be able to forget that? And, think about it. Which would say more about our friendship: a response in which you forgave me despite my having caused you pain OR a response in which you tried to suppress with great effort a memory that just wouldn’t budge?
I think there are all kinds of difficulties with how we understand and practice forgiveness. We teach our children to say they’re sorry, even if they don’t mean it. And, we encourage them to accept the apology of another child even if their sincerity is highly suspect.
I think to be perfectly frank about it, that we often don’t know what to do with forgiveness and struggle to understand what it really means.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ first words from the cross are “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Hanging in agony on that cross was not the first time Jesus addressed the topic of forgiveness. It comes up quite a bit in Luke’s gospel.
In chapter five, Jesus heals a paralytic man. But the story of the healing is very much focused around the subject of forgiveness. Through the miracle, we are clearly shown that Jesus has the power and authority to forgive sin and that his willingness to do so has dramatic, tangible effects on our lives.
In chapter 6, Jesus engages in teaching that might be likened to our cliché “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander” when he says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…”[i]
In chapter 7 of Luke’s gospel, a story of Jesus and a sinful woman shows that, no matter how bad one’s reputation or however immoral one’s lifestyle, Jesus is still able to forgive them and accept them.
And in chapter 15, Jesus tells one of his most popular parables about a prodigal, disrespectful, good-for-nothing son whose father welcomes him back home with a party to rival the best of celebrations.
And so, perhaps it ought not to surprise us that Jesus, from the cross, pronounces forgiveness for those who have humiliated him, rejected him, betrayed him, beaten him and, finally, are killing him. He has the opportunity and the authority to forgive. And, just as importantly, he has a mercy abundant enough to really mean it.
But, that’s not all because Jesus expects us to continue his radical ministry of forgiveness. Unique to Luke’s gospel is Jesus’ post-resurrection commission to his disciples in which he tells them: “repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name to all nations…”
Today we remember, just as we considered last Sunday, that Jesus – despite full knowledge of the fate awaiting him in Jerusalem – walked that journey for our sake. He came to reveal and make real the forgiveness and the saving grace of God. And it is something so enormous, so outlandish; we can’t fully comprehend or even know what to do with such a remarkable gift. Who could really understand a love that is able to grant forgiveness to one’s own murderers?
Retired Methodist Bishop William Willimon tells a story of a tragic event early in his tenure as professor at Duke Divinity School. He writes:
I held the newspaper before me and looked at the picture of a tall, thin blonde-bearded man. The headline said he was bricklayer George Richard Fisher whom police had charged in the kidnapping, rape and murder of 8-year old Jean Fewel of Chapel Hill, N.C. At the time of his arrest, Fisher was free on parole after serving 8 years of a 30 year sentence for three arson convictions and 5 B&E and larceny convictions. Witnesses identified Fisher as the man they saw near where Jean’s body was found hanging from a tree, a few miles from Ephesus Elementary School where she was a student. I rummaged through a stack of old newspapers and found the picture of Jean that had appeared with her obituary. Only a year ago, this smiling little girl had been adopted and brought here from Hong Kong by her new parents. Friends at Binkley Baptist Church knew how much Tom and Joy Fewel had wanted a little sister for the 11 year old Korean they had previously adopted. Everyone at the church celebrated Jean’s arrival. They all pitched in to teach her English and to try to contain her vitality at children’s choir practices. Binkley Baptist is known as the most liberal Baptist Church in the area. The pastor, Bob Bracher, has long been at the forefront of social causes, and one of his longtime concerns has been the North Carolina death penalty. He’s preached on it on many occasions and last fall urged parishioners to demonstrate with him in Raleigh when Velma Barfield was executed. I set the picture of Fisher next to the picture of little Jean. I thought of Jean. I thought of her parents. I thought of my own seven year old daughter. Julie Stroupe, associate pastor at Binkley, led the funeral for Jean. The sanctuary was full. The children’s choir sang. A tambourine lay on the communion table. “Jean often played it during children’s worship,” said the pastor. “Now it is silent.” On the way out, one of Binkley’s deacons, with tear-filled eyes, turned to me and said, “I thought I was clear about capital punishment, but this has really made me think again.” I looked again at the picture of Jean. I wondered what I would be thinking if it were a picture of my seven-year-old daughter. What theological position would I take then? I looked again at the picture of Fisher. I tried to feel compassion for him. I tried to see him as a brother – or even just a fellow human being. But God help me, I couldn’t. I tried to imagine what I’d say to him if I were his pastor. Nothing came to me. I tried to imagine what it might be like to be hung on a cross next to a three-time loser like Fisher. I tried to look into his eyes and say the words, “Father, forgive…” but I could not.
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.
[i] Luke 6:37
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